President Joe Biden and China’s leader Xi Jinping met this week on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco. The Biden administration touted the meeting as a significant foreign policy achievement, even though it accomplished little but photo ops.
Leading up to the APEC meeting, Xi had a weak hand, while the leverage was on the U.S. side. China’s economic growth has slowed down significantly. Its once high-flying property sector crashed and exports dropped. The youth unemployment rate reached 22 percent in June 2023 before Beijing stopped publishing the data altogether out of fear of causing public panic. Foreign firms have pulled billions out of China, concerned over its weak economy, hostile regulatory environment, and geopolitical tensions with the U.S. China risks prolonged economic stagnation as consumers are unwilling to spend money due to financial and political uncertainty.
In contrast, the U.S. economy grew almost 5 percent in the third quarter despite facing its own challenges, such as inflation and ballooning national debt. Since China needs American companies’ investments and technologies to revive its weak economy, Biden could have waited for Xi to plead for a summit and used it as leverage to demand some behavioral changes from China. Preconditions could have been that China’s military stops its harassment of Taiwan and the Philippines in the South China Sea, or no more funding Russia and Iran’s geopolitical aggressions by purchasing their oil.
Sadly, Biden and his foreign policy team are known to turn U.S. leverage into weakness by focusing on the wrong priorities. For example, they continue to believe that climate change is the world’s biggest challenge and that the U.S. needs China’s cooperation to save the planet, even though China remains the world’s biggest polluter after signing the Paris Climate Agreement.
Biden’s green initiatives have only deepened the U.S. economy’s dependency on China since the communist regime dominates the global supply chain for solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries for electric vehicles due to its willingness to exploit slave laborers (most are ethnic minorities) and the nation’s abundant supply of coal.
Biden, led by misguided policies, sent several cabinet-level officials to China, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. They practically begged Xi for a meeting. Xi, of course, played hard to get. Rather than reciprocating senior U.S. government officials’ multiple visits, Xi waited until last month to send Wang Yi, China’s minister of foreign affairs, to visit the U.S. and only recently agreed to a meeting with Biden.
A few days before the summit, China’s People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), faulted the U.S. for the deterioration of the Sino-U.S. relationship and demanded the U.S. “abandon its aggressive Cold War and aggressive mindset, fix the ‘action deficit’ with practical actions and concrete policies,” even though China is the one who has an action deficit as wide as the Grand Canyon. Remember when Xi promised President Barack Obama not to militarize artificial islands in the South China Sea and then armed those islands anyway and claimed 90 percent of the international waterway is Chinese territory?
Communist Party’s Playbook
What Xi has been doing is following the typical CCP playbook. Miles Yu, a former senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, points out that CCP leaders, starting with Mao, love to “use international gatherings to lend legitimacy to [a] beleaguered regime at home.” By playing hard to get with the Biden administration, Xi hid his weakened hand behind a strongman image. He “seeks to send the message to his caged people — aided by the CCP’s relentless propaganda machine — that their supreme leader is respected, even revered, on the global stage,” according to Yu. Another CCP go-to tactic is to make vague and unenforceable pledges for the distant future in exchange for concessions from the other side now.
Unfortunately, the Biden team fell for the CCP’s trick. In a post-summit press conference, Biden put on a brave face and claimed the summit was “among the most constructive and productive we’ve had,” with three key agreements: to restart cooperation on controlling fentanyl, to resume direct (high-level) military-to-military contact, and to set up expert exchanges on risks and safety issues in artificial intelligence (AI).
But none of these represent any meaningful achievement, since the CCP is known for making empty promises, and the joke is on whoever believes them. On the fentanyl issue, many China observers, including Kelley Currie, a former diplomat, quickly pointed out on X, “Don’t forget that China agreed to do this exact thing in 2019 and dramatically reduced the flow of fentanyl out of China, only to switch tactics and instead supply mass amounts of precursor chemicals to Mexican cartels.”
On the AI issue, China promised nothing. Xi has made enhancing the People’s Liberation Army’s capabilities through AI a national priority and has already committed plenty of resources for AI research and development. Xi will not change his course because of some experts’ exchanges on AI with Americans. If such a discussion occurs, China will exploit it to identify which American AI expert to poach and what latest AI technology China should steal.
Biden clearly believes that resuming direct, high-level military-to-military contact between the U.S. and China was a significant accomplishment. He tweeted, “Clear and open communication between our defense establishments is vital to avoid miscalculation by either side and prevent conflict.” But it was Chinese military leaders who refused to pick up phone calls from the U.S. side, and they did so under Xi’s order.
Chinese pilots frequently made dangerous maneuvers near the U.S. and its allies’ military assets in the South China Sea, not because of a lack of communication but because of Xi’s deliberate policy decision: China regards the international water as its territory and tries to block the U.S. and its allies from accessing it through intimidation. According to Jacob Stokes, a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, “China wants the United States and its partners to feel worried about rising military and security risks in East Asia.”
It’s unlikely the Chinese military’s aggressive behavior in and above the South China Sea will stop after the Biden-Xi summit. Furthermore, Elbridge Colby, a former Pentagon official, points out that military-to-military communication is “not vital. It’s not the key issue.” Responding to Biden’s self-congratulatory tweet, Colby wrote, “The key issue is China undertaking a historic military buildup and increasingly using that military to get ready for a war, as your own appointees and generals point out. Just really nowhere near the seriousness we need.”
President Biden and his foreign policy team want Americans to believe that his meeting with Xi in San Francisco was successful. But in truth, the U.S. gained nothing from the Biden-Xi summit. Don’t expect Xi to fulfill any promises or change his policies. The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s recent 753-page report to Congress presented evidence that Xi is preparing his military forces and the rest of the country for war and treats diplomacy with the United States, such as the most recent Biden-Xi summit, “primarily as a tool for forestalling and delaying U.S. pressure over a period of years while China moves ever further down the path of developing its own economic, military, and technological capabilities.”
If anything, the world is becoming more dangerous after the Biden-Xi summit, and we are on Xi’s timeline.